After Charlottesville, a fresh look at Atlanta’s Confederate symbols

7:08 p.m Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 Local
JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM
Protesters in Atlanta angry with white supremacist violence in Charlottesville marched to Piedmont Park Sunday night, spray painting a statue of a Confederate soldier and chanting slogans decrying President Donald Trump.

Mayor Kasim Reed under pressure to rename streets in Atlanta. Police defending their response to militant anti-fascist protesters who defaced a statue dedicated, ironically, to peace.

Two days after a rally by white supremacists turned deadly in Charlottesville, metro Atlanta was again wrestling with its own complicated and volatile legacy of Southern names and iconography. Over the years, the region and the state have wrestled with blending the old and the new. Georgia removed the Confederate battle emblem from its prominent place on the state flag. And some city street names have transformed from Civil War generals to civil rights figures.

Reed said he will soon make a decision on petitions seeking to re-brand streets such as Confederate Avenue. A change.org petition seeking to change the name of the Grant Park road had attracted more than 4,000 signatures as of Monday evening.

“Over the past two days, Atlanta residents have started petitions and called for city streets bearing the name of the Confederacy or Confederate leaders to be renamed,” Reed said. “I will carefully consider these petitions, because symbols matter, and as those espousing hate-filled ideologies grow bolder, we must grow stronger in defense of our values.”

Separately, another petition was circulating to remove a Confederate memorial on the square in Decatur.

Confederate Avenue runs through the Atlanta neighborhoods of Grant Park and Ormewood Park

The petition to change the name of Confederate Avenue was started by Atlanta resident Joe Thomas, who wrote that “allowing Confederate flags, statues, and street names serves only to perpetuate the fallacy that the hate they represent deserves equal time and attention from our society.

“Nazis, white nationalists, and their allies are not welcome here, and neither are their symbols,” he said.

Protesters affiliated with the militant anti-fascist “antifa” movement took that crusade into their own hands Sunday night, or so they thought, when they defaced a statue in Piedmont Park that, to a casual observer, “looks like a Confederate memorial,” said Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy, a sixth generation Atlantan and amateur historian.

But it was erected to champion unity, not venerate the Confederacy, said Kennedy, who has taken his children to visit it many times to explain Atlanta’s history. Sometimes when he’s visiting the park, he becomes an impromptu tour guide, detailing the monument’s meaning to visitors.

Unfortunately Kennedy wasn’t there to stop protesters from climbing and spray painting the Peace Monument, which depicts a Confederate soldier after the Civil War. Part of the statue, an olive branch, was detached.

Atlanta activists conducted an impromptu march Saturday after Charlottesville. Heather Heyer was killed by a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist. State troopers Jay Cullen and Berke Bates died after their helicopter crashed. Protesters Sunday night spray painted a statue of a Confederate soldier. "There's no pitchforks and fire," one protester said. "We're just here to say as Americans, we do not stand for that."

A lone Atlanta police officer was there amid a scene that threatened to grow violent. He was surrounded by black-clad antifa protesters shouting “pig.” Black Lives Matter protesters put themselves between the police officer and the antifacism crowd and the gathering soon dispersed with no arrests.

Although there was scant presence at the statue Atlanta police had “enough officers available on standby to intervene in the event of criminal activity,” said APD spokesman Carlos Campos.

“We monitor these demonstrations closely and make judgment calls on when it is appropriate to intervene, or make arrests when lawlessness occurs,” Campos said.

The antifa demonstration began with a rally at Woodruff Park and continued with a unsanctioned march down Peachtree Street and into Piedmont Park.

APD commanders made a tactical decision to give the protesters some space “as long as they remained peaceful,” Campos said. “For the majority of the march, that was the case.”

“We are intentional in our decision-making and do not want to escalate a situation by giving the appearance of unnecessarily presenting ourselves in a military fashion,” Campos said, adding that police request anyone with information or evidence of the statue desecration to come forward.

The monument’s history traces back to the Civil War. Members of an Atlanta militia called the Gate City Guard were among the first to take up arms against the North. Afterward, some survivors became part of what would eventually become the Georgia National Guard. Others, who felt they were too old to fight any longer, took up the cause for reconciliation.

“These guys realized a national healing needed to take place,” said Kennedy, who keeps the three-volume set “The Chronicles of the Old Guard” on his bookshelf. “They organized a peace tour of the North, which is really remarkable. These were guys who fought in the Civil War, against Union troops. They would go meet with Union soldiers and began to repair those fissures the war created. It speaks to what we call the Atlanta spirit.”

The former Gate City Guard has given way to a civic group called the Old Guard of the Gate City Guard, whose members participate in historic commemorations including an annual re-dedication of the Peace Monument. Past commandant John Green, who repudiated the “racist garbage” he saw on display in Charlottesville over the weekend, hopes it will be restored in time for this fall’s ceremony.

“We would like for people to know what it is,” he said.

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